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Variations On a Theme Of Pain

  1. A Body in Pain:

‘I thought I would never write this story,’  with these words Akachi Chukwuemeka begins his masterpiece  ’16 Notes on How To End a Life’. I too thought I would never write this piece. I have had this idea for a long time, turning it over in my mind, nibbling at it, but never actually putting it down on paper. How long does an idea stay in our heads before it decays and dies? Is it particularly difficult because this is about pain? Is it painful writing about pain?
Finally confronting these pages, I am well aware of what I have to contend with, delineating the facts of a body in pain.

‘I’m trying’. Akachi’s next words in the piece. I too am trying. Collecting my thoughts, retrieving my memories, organizing these scattered ideas. In the face of the incisiveness of pain, I am left defenceless; it is like a stabbing. I am a forger of tales, an alchemist of stories but in the presence of this pain, my repertoire is voided. I grasp for words to elucidate, but the words elude me. I am nothing but a figure in the shadows, groping in the dark for some omen. Any words I conjure up will have to endure a fracturing, an assault by pain. I will attempt, however. I have been stewing these images in my mind for too long and they must somehow make an appearance. I must write into this wordlessness, resisting the encroaching void. I’m trying.

There must be a word for a feeling evoked in us when we first encounter the work of a great mind. How do we describe that feeling? Is it awe? Is it bewilderment? Is it enchantment? I particularly like enchantment, perhaps because it gestures to the surreal, the sublime. But there’s no single word to describe what I felt when I first read Akachi’s piece 16 Notes on How to End a Life. I could remember vividly where I was when I first read it. I was at my father’s house having returned because I had just graduated from medical school.

I was roaming around the rooms, taking some time to burrow through Andrew Solomon’s book on depression, Carl Jung’s memoirs, and Blaise Pascal’s Pensees. I was also steeling myself against the onslaught of another bout of depression. In an anthology sent to me by a budding poet, I encountered Akachi’s poem. I use the word ‘encounter’ here deliberately. It was like a meeting of minds, a congruence of souls. It evoked an uncanny sensation in me, it incited my pain centres. It gave words to my wordlessness, illuminating the pain I was feeling at the time, marking out its contours, elucidating its sharp edges, commenting on the fate of the wretched soul entrapped in this painful existence and what it does to a body.  I wanted to meet the author.

Why do we assume that the author pours himself into his work with reckless abandon? Why do we presume that a piece must bear the ineluctable imprints of the one who created it? And if a body of work evokes sceneries of melancholy, landscapes of grief, murals of pain, why do we suppose that the body that created this work too must be in pain, enshrouded by melancholy, enveloped by grief?

Written in numbered sections, totaling 16, Akachi’s piece chronicles a body in pain. It starts with the narrator alluding to the difficulty of writing about this body (or is it the difficulty of writing ‘in’ the body?). The next ‘note’ is about the narrator’s meeting with his psychiatrist. The therapist asks him: ‘When was the last time you thought of killing yourself?’ and the narrator responds: ‘Now’.  The therapist is unaware that the narrator had already filled his stomach with liters of fuel, having made the ultimate decision to end his life.

The narrator promptly asks for the session to be rescheduled knowing he wouldn’t be alive the following day. Interspersed with the scenery of this session is the larger story: He writes about growing up in Taraba State, about his troublesome sister, his trader mother, his father who for some reason lives apart from them in Nsukka. He writes about a girl that probably had a crush on him and the move to Nsukka where he first thought of killing himself. He writes about these events in a fragmentary manner, reminding us that he only remembers these incidents ‘in light showers’ the splintering of memory by pain. What we are left with are scatterings, handfuls of sand in this desert of sorrow.

We are also left with a number of questions: Did he kill himself because his sister peed in his bathwater? Or because he was moved to Nsukka away from Taraba where he grew up and where he thought of as home? Or was it because of the girl who had a crush on him, a girl he probably also had a crush on? He writes about these events situated firmly within the consciousness of a body steeped in pain, finally concluding that ‘the only way to wear a new body is to die’. He writes compulsively ‘spoonfeeding this story ‘ to his journal because ‘no one holds his pain more than it does’. In the end, he is lying in bed with a stomach full of fuel, ready to ‘dream himself into a shiny casket.’ But then he wakes up… again.

Why is it that I wanted to meet the author after reading this piece?  It wasn’t really because I thought he was in pain. It wasn’t because I thought the narrator in the story was Akachi. It certainly wasn’t because I wanted to save him or because I felt he needed saving.  It was simply because I wanted to talk to someone whose work showed a deep understanding of what it was like to be entrapped in a body riddled with pain. I wanted him to explain my own pain, to help me understand it, however silly that might have seemed. I also wanted to see the person who had conceived of such a beautiful masterpiece.

So I embarked on my quest for Akachi. I imagined what our first meeting would be like. I imagined sitting across from him in a restaurant (perhaps Chittis) at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. I imagined him casually drinking a bottle of Fanta while telling me how he wrote the poem, who his favorite authors were, and what it was like to exist in a body in pain. I imagined that there would be an awkwardness to this encounter, as all writers are reclusive and are given to a certain kind of eccentricity. But I also imagined that that awkwardness would fade as we commiserated over our own miseries, the depression that eats away at us, ‘carving demons in our brains’.

From the person who had sent me the anthology containing Akachi’s piece, I enquired if he knew the author. From his vague replies, I surmised that he didn’t. So I went on Facebook and there I read the following words on Akachi’s page ‘Finit hic deo,’ ‘God ends here.’ And beneath this, a post-dated May 13, 2019@7AM: ‘Forgive me. In case you are the one who found the body. I am really sorry. It had to be someone, you know…’

I felt as though my quest had ended in a graveyard. The one whom I sought was already dead.


The Pain of a Sudden Disappearance:

Though not as acute or as severe as the pain of existence, there’s a certain pain engendered by a sudden disappearance. When what we seek evades us, this too nibbles at our pain centers. There are two ways to look at this; from the perspective of the one who vanishes, and from the perspective of the one who is left behind. Both could find themselves in enormous pain.

When I was first assailed by pain, I thought about disappearing. Because those around me could not understand the concept of emotional pain, because they are also partly the source of this pain, I imagined that it would be best just to vanish. Sometimes I have even gone so far as to devise a plan. First, gather enough money to be able to live on your own. Second, secure a place of living far away from family and friends. Third, ditch your SIM card, and on a dark moonless night slide into a taxi and tell him to drive you to the nearest bus station. Fourth, board this bus under the cover of night, heading to a new destination, to begin a new life, never to be seen or heard from again.

Because I like making up stories, I have also wondered what people would think if I disappeared. Would they think I killed myself in some shadowy place?  Would they think I was kidnapped? Would they think I was murdered? Because I have often spoken about my descent into depression, I imagined that their first thought would be that I had committed suicide. But how do we know what happened to a body if we don’t find the body? And if the body remains forever elusive how will we ever know?

I have known pain for a long time. Sometimes I cannot believe how long my body has lived with pain, sometimes dwindling, sometimes rekindling, but still there, always there. This pain endures, much as the person who houses it endures. It started with a melancholic pang so long ago I cannot even remember. The landscape of pain is one that is difficult to navigate, there are undulating hills, hollow caverns. In those caverns, I caged my thoughts. On those hills, I buried my memories. But these thoughts do not lie dormant, the memories did not remain buried. I found myself enmeshed in the tapestry of despair. I was in the epicenter of churning grief.

The body in pain could at least try recollecting when the pain started, not that this would do him any good. However much you try you are still left with fragmentations, divagations. Remembrance, what good has this done me except plunge me into more despair? To remember is to stoke the fire in which I am already burning. Perhaps that’s why I have put off writing this piece for so long. Perhaps that’s why I am still circling around the issue without addressing head-on the inception of my depressive illness, my debilitating pain.

I can make an attempt to chart the course of this pain, to trace its trajectory. But I suspect that any such attempts will prove futile. To circumvent this, I will instead speak of my disappearances, my vanishings. For as much as I have envisioned these disappearances, I have also gone so far as to put it into effect,  to some extent anyway. I speak of disappearances in the context of temporarily severing ties from family and friends, going incommunicado.

The first time I thought about disappearing, I was in my first year of medical school. Amidst the constant rustle, the casual prejudice against me for being Muslim in a predominantly Christian environment, my father’s marriage to his secretary,  and the news that my English Language papers were missing, amidst all of these things, I wanted nothing more than to vanish. I felt my despair burgeoning. I could remember how acute the pain felt, how intense, how every single waking moment was immersed in anguish, ensnared in sorrow. I remember crying in the rain.

The second time I thought about vanishing I had just finished my first year. My body was riddled with a kind of excessive anxiety that made it feeble, frail, and useless. I remember boarding a bus from Nsukka to Enugu for no reason other than to feel the thrill of escape. I remember a number of aimless wanderings, pointless peregrinations.

The first time I ‘disappeared’ was shortly after my sister’s death. I screened all calls coming from home. I evaded friends. I vanished into myself. I imagined the pain this ‘disappearance’ must have incited in my brothers and sisters. But a body in pain can only contend with the pain it’s in, it cannot think of the pain of others. I remember sitting down on the cold floor, crying uncontrollably, not knowing how to make the tears stop, not knowing how to go on living, not knowing what exactly ‘living’ was.

There have been other yearnings for disappearances, particularly during moments and periods when I feel paralyzed by pain such that everything becomes unbearably difficult. I remember lying still in my bed, unable to move. I had exams the following day but I couldn’t bring myself to get up. I was a body frozen in grief, crystallized by despair. It was in those terrifying moments that I most longed to disappear.

As much as I contemplated disappearance, I also contemplated death. There are a lot of things to do to a body in pain. You can try to ameliorate this pain by the little comforts of life, the love of family, the kindness of friends, but when these fail you quickly move on to desperate measures. You begin to devise means to rid yourself of this body. Akachi writing about the narrator wanting to pass a sharp thing through his body. The narrator tells us that it is in Nsukka where he first thought of killing himself. I also first thought of killing myself in Nsukka. In my first year, there was news of a student in the university campus in Nsukka who hanged himself, leaving behind a cryptic suicide note that read: ‘The controversy is over’. In the years to come, Nsukka would witness more suicides. Is there something about Nsukka that makes one want to kill oneself?

I envisioned a number of ways to kill myself. I imagined jumping in front of a moving vehicle. I imagined taking a pill that will make me sleep forever. I thought about plunging a neck into my carotid artery or, if I can get my hands on a gun, blowing my brains out. I researched people who had committed suicide. I read about people who killed themselves. French author Gerard de Nerval, who hanged himself after writing that life had become nothing more than ‘vulgar distractions’. Ernest Hemingway, who shot himself in the head. Vincent van Gogh, who shot himself in the chest. Virginia Woolf, who filled her pockets with stones and walked into a river, drowning herself. I also read keenly about the suicides in the country. The poisonings, the stabbings, the shootings. There are a number of things to do to a body in pain.

There’s a point in Akachi’s poem where the narrator wonders if people can see that he intends to kill himself. It must be written on his forehead, the narrator wonders; this mark of suicidal ideation. He is amazed that the people he encounters seem oblivious of his impending death. Like Akachi, I often wondered if people could see beyond my thinly veiled calm exterior to the chaos beneath, the pain that is eating away at my innards.

The clean pavement, the esplanade at the front of the medical student hostel. I have had casual conversations while standing on that pavement, I have scurried across that pavement with food I had purchased from the adjacent cafeteria, but I have also thought about jumping from the roof to that pavement, splattering my brain on the gravel.

We can think of death as a permanent disappearance, an irremediable vanishing, an irrevocable erasure. I read somewhere that in the morning of May 13, 2019, Akachi’s friends noticed that he was ‘missing’. They went around searching for him. They went to his room. He wasn’t there. He wasn’t in class either. Finally, they decided to look for him in an abandoned building where he was known to frequent, a place where he usually goes to be alone, and it was there that they found him writhing on the floor, gasping for breath, having poisoned himself. About 14 hours later, he was dead.

When a young person goes missing, suicide is always one possible explanation. My friend Bright has been missing for two years now. It is possible that he is dead.

  1. Writing the Pain:

‘When you want to write my obituary forget everything you know about me, my life was never perfect. I hope the mortician will make me beautiful. When you want to write my obituary, wander into the nearest forest and write it on the largest leaf you can find. One leaf. Everything I ever did can be summed up on one page.’ Akachi’s words in a Facebook postdated September 13, 2017, two years before he killed himself.

After reading 16 Notes on How To End a Life, after finding out that the author was dead, I scoured the internet to uncover ‘everything he ever did’, everything he ever wrote. I read his piece Beginnings and Endings, a story about a boy and a girl who fall in love with each other and then died. I read How To Paint a Boy where he writes: ‘ We teach ourselves that the darkness flowing through our veins will one day make our deaths beautiful.’ I read How To Remember, a piece about a boy who meets a girl, ‘her voice a bright shade you can’t imagine, and for one second, you almost believe in angels.’ I excavated his oeuvre, read everything he ever published. In some of these publications, he is introduced as a poet who ‘ who writes to keep his sanity.’ In others, he is written as ‘an atheist who worships his sadness’, who ‘whenever he is not thinking of ending his life, is thinking of making it better’. In this ‘author’s bio’ it is also written that ‘ he is currently working on his first poetry chapbook titled Meet My Therapist,’ and ‘that he is still alive, for now.’ The sad thing about that last sentence was that by the time I read it, it had ceased to be true, the author was no longer alive.

Years later I came across this quote by Roland Barthes; ‘ To read the dead author is, for me, to be alive, for I am shattered, torn by the awareness of the contradiction between the intense life of his text and the sadness knowing he is dead: I am always saddened by the death of an author, moved by the story of the death of authors. To mourn is to be alive.’ There are no better words to explain how I felt sloughing through Akachi’s body of work. To read him is to be aware of his death, but also to remind myself that I am still alive. I envision his life, as well as I envision my death.

In my quest for the dead author, I encountered several people who seemed to be housing his ghost. The first of these people was the Ghanaian poet Jo Nketiah. In Akachi’s suicide note, he writes,  ‘ I have chosen Jo Nketiah’s poem as my suicide note: ‘They said you came looking for me. I didn’t drown. I was the water.”

So I went looking for Jo Nketiah. I found her on Facebook. I asked her about the said poem. She told me that it was a victory slogan, that ‘becoming the water’ was a metaphor for conquering your pain, not letting it drown you. It was never intended to urge people to commit suicide. I read her other poems which were varied and multilayered, some dealing with depression, some dealing with love, some dealing with friendship. I came across one of her poems titled I Am Not Suicidal where she writes about being ‘ a permeable membrane to sadness.’ I read Nketiah’s works ardently as though trying to glean the apparition of the dead author.

In my friend Nnaemeka’s poems, I glimpsed Akachi’s face. Nnaemeka, who for a while wrote stories, suddenly broke with that and started writing poetry about pain. In shimmering words evoking memories of friends, family, and lovers, Nnaemeka chronicles the dilemma of a body in pain, wanting to die yet willing to live, immersed in pain yet laughing with the world. ‘Beneath my laughter lies my ache, beneath my hope lies despair.’ Nnaemeka’s words.

In my friend Addei’s works, I detected a faint whiff of Akachi. The pain that Addei writes about is so severe, so visceral, it tends towards an evisceration of the body, an obliteration of the self. In one of his poems, he writes; ‘ These voices live within me. They speak of pain and suffering from time immemorial. And whisper sweet nothings into my ear: ‘ It’s time to stop writing in that journal and slit your throat, my dear.”

These authors, each straddling their own pain, negotiating with it, navigating it, writing through it. They are still alive. For now.

And Akachi is dead. He has been dead for two years and in those years he has haunted my works. I am writing this piece in an attempt to purge myself of his ghost. As for the bodies of the writers I feel he is inhabiting, well I suppose I would have to purge those too. It’s time for an exorcism. It’s time to let go. I will rid myself of this poltergeist. So why do I still return to his work? Why do I still reread his poems?

Why are his words still replaying in my head? These words and the melancholy they awake, the pain they invoke. The dead author lives on through his words. These words, as though speaking from the grave, are a reprieve to all who would deign to write about his life and those who would dare to read about it. These words resounding in the recesses of my soul, bruised and brutalized yet undying. These words: ‘When you need to read my obituary, read it on a full moon. In the presence of dry flowers scattered on my grave and silence. I will be there standing in your shadow. Don’t say, “May his soul rest in peace.” My soul didn’t die. I saved it from rust.

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

Published inNonfictionSlice of Life

One Comment

  1. Priest Priest Priest Priest

    I am the same. I am relieved someone wrote all that in my head. I am more than happy someone paid my debt. Thank you.

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